Prairie gardening viewpoints: guest post.

I am delighted to announce that I have another guest on the blog!  I’ve been thinking it would be interesting for me to pose a few questions to some Prairie gardeners I know, inquiring about their experiences gardening in such a unique, challenging climate.  I want to find out what they love about gardening in Alberta, what they find difficult, and what inspires them about growing.  Whether you live on the Canadian Prairies or you’re much further afield, I’m sure you’ll find ideas and solutions to consider for your own gardening endeavours.

Please allow me to introduce Lana Gress!

Where do you garden in Alberta?  What challenges do you think we face as gardeners in this province?  How can we overcome those challenges?

I have been gardening in Red Deer, AB for the last three years. I think that Alberta is very unique in respect to gardening because we have some very distinct differences in weather depending on where you are located in the province and how close you are in proximity to the foothills. I really struggled with this the first two years that I lived in Red Deer. Having grown up in northern Saskatchewan, I initially expected gardening to be similar in Alberta but only better because Red Deer is a zone 3b to 4! I had not anticipated the affect of the freeze/thaw cycles of chinook years on trees, shrubs, and perennials that I considered hardly in SK, or how the close proximity to the mountains really makes the overnight temperatures dramatically lower, even in Central Alberta. I believe that these are probably the most challenging things for Alberta gardeners, especially when it comes to vegetable growing. I really had to rethink everything that I had learned about vegetable gardens in Saskatchewan! In Red Deer I’ve found that the ground is still too cold and the night temps are often low well into June. Things that I would have direct seeded on May long weekend in SK (cucumbers, zucchini, corn) have a better chance of success in AB if they are started as transplants in the house. I also live in a hail belt region and I usually get about 2-3 incidences of hail in June/July. This means that it is riskier growing things like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. I tend to grow those vegetables solely in containers for two reasons; I can move them to protected areas if I think there is a chance of hail, and with the colder overnight temps I find that container growing produces more robust and vigorous growth because the root zones of my heat loving plants are always warmer.

What inspires you about gardening?

My grandmother was an avid and inspirational gardener, and she grew the large prairie garden that was typical of her generation. She also had a passion for houseplants and her home was a jungle! Many of these tropical plants were started from seeds and slips all acquired through mail-order catalogues. Grandma even started succulents and African violets from seed! I think this early exposure to growing everything is what developed my passion for growing. I have a diploma in horticulture from Olds College, and have worked as a professional horticulturalist for over 25 years in all aspects of the trade, but growing is my main passion!  

What types of plants are you most passionate about growing?

I’m extremely passionate about food security so vegetable growing is a large focus of mine. I lived in Vancouver and urban areas of the Fraser Valley for 15 yrs before moving to Alberta. The cost of living is very high there so I always looked for ways to stretch my income. Growing as much of my own food as possible was an obvious solution to me. I never had much space either so I started to focus on container growing both outdoors and indoors to help maximize my growing potential. When I moved to an area where I was able to have a “traditional vegetable garden”, I really started to explore gardening methods like biointensive planting practices. I have had gardens that have produced about 1200 pounds of produce in 300 sq ft by using methods like succession planting, interplanting, vertical gardening etc…

What gardening (or gardening-related) projects do you have on the go this year?  What are your goals for this growing season?

This season is an exciting one for me! I have been renting in Red Deer and my yard had no established garden beds and the landlord was a bit hesitant for me to establish a garden bed or build raised beds.  I have solely container gardened for the last two seasons. Once my landlord saw how capable I was he has now agreed to let me develop permanent garden space in the yard. Last summer I began by developing a small in ground bed using the  sheet composting method aka “lasagna gardening”. This is a great method for my landscape as I have very heavy clay subsoil and a small layer of topsoil in the yard. I will be building more beds using this method plus I’ve started to build raised beds. I also have been growing tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers indoors using LED lights for the last few years. I’m planning on expanding the indoor garden in the fall by building a vertical hydroponic system to grow greens, herbs, and strawberries!

A huge thank you, Lana, for your detailed and thoughtful answers – you’ve got us thinking about microclimates and how to protect plants from the extremes of the weather, as well as effective strategies to grow successfully indoors, create productive container gardens, and garner high yields in small spaces. These are all concepts we can use no matter where we live!

Photo by Lana Gress
Photo by Lana Gress

Hardiness mapping – how you can help (2012).

Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated their national Plant Hardiness Map to reflect data collected over the period 1974 to 2005.  (The previous map had been released in 1990, and used data from 1974-1986).  The new map adjusts the hardiness zones of the country to reflect a warming climate – there’s a 5 degree Fahrenheit difference between the 1990 zones and the 2012 ones.  While that may be enough to push certain American gardeners out of their previous hardiness zones into a new one, it’s still necessary, when actually getting out and digging in the dirt, to consider microclimates and all of the other climatic factors that comprise “plant hardiness.”  It’s not just about neat and tidy labels:  plants are alive, after all, and they don’t always grow where we think they should.   Anyway, the new USDA map is also interactive:  American citizens can plunk in their zip code and a search engine will tell them what zone they live in.  I guess that’s good if you don’t want to look at the map and interpret the colour codes.   If you’re interested, you can check out the new map here.  (Sometimes the USDA zones are referenced in Canada as well, especially when plants are traded back and forth between the two countries).

Here in Canada, our non-interactive Plant Hardiness Map is not merely based on the average annual extreme minimum temperature (read:  average minimum winter temperature) like the USDA map is:  ours includes many more climatic variables, such as the length of frost-free period (live anywhere in this country for at least a single gardening season and you’ll understand why this is so important), summer rainfall, maximum temperatures, snow cover, and maximum wind speed, among others.  Our most recent map was released in 2000, and updates the original map from 1967.

I’m not sure when the government began the project, but it seems that they’re making the humungous effort to further break down our current plant hardiness zones into “Plant Specific Zones”:  they want to figure out where exactly in Canada you can grow specific trees, shrubs, and perennials, and map that information – plant by plant – for the benefit of gardeners and farmers across the nation.   Because this is such a monumental undertaking, they’re soliciting the assistance of people all across Canada to furnish them with data about what plants are surviving in their geographical region.  So, if you want to let them know that your white bleeding heart is thriving in Winnipeg, or your emerald cedar is doing well in Edmonton, you can register on this site and tell them.  Obviously, the maps will only be built as quickly as the data is sent in, and by nature, will be ever-evolving.  Due to inevitable gaps in information, these plant-specific maps may only have a limited usage, but just like the Plant Hardiness Map, they should provide an excellent framework for gardeners to start with.